The holiday season is many things to many people. For some, it’s a time for gathering family and friends to share in fellowship, warm feelings, and good food. For others, it means having to put on a brave face while dealing with people they’d rather not see for the sake of an uneasy peace. For me, it’s probably a combination of the two (and a bit of neither), but one thing remains true for all of us: alcohol is indispensable.
Some of my favorite holiday memories are of my grandmother’s house. The front yard of cold yellow grass and dog poop where my Uncle Glenn, my brother and I used to rip through beer after beer while the rest of my family sat in the front room and tried to pretend that this year wasn’t at least twice as much of an outstanding failure on every conceivable level as the one before it. We’d knock down a case in the time it took the turkey to die a second time, telling dirty jokes and listening to the big rigs throbbing down the freeway. It wasn’t much, but it was a good way to deal with the predictable cruelty of our familial politics, and an even better excuse to pee in my Grandmother’s yard.
That was the state of my holidays every year since I was twelve, and it happened that way until a rebel backhoe killed my uncle in his backyard and I met the woman I was going to marry (but not at the same time). Though I had always thought my holidays were pretty standard, it turns out that most folks don’t have to deal with listening to their grandmother’s sexual fantasies about the black mailman while washing dishes, and that some families actually enjoy each other’s company. My wife’s family is one of those—most of the time, anyway—and being that she is infinitely charitable and kind, she invited me one year to go with her to a get-together on her mother’s side of the family, who happen to be Swedish.
Now, I must preface this story with a disclaimer: I love Swedish people. In my experience, they have all been exceedingly kind and hospitable, and while they have a bit of a time with sarcasm and metaphor of any sort, they are generally good-natured, generous and loving folks who love their families. They also throw great parties with copious amounts of booze, which doesn’t hurt, and they seem to like football, which also doesn’t hurt. Unfortunately, they also have the worst food on the planet Earth. Seriously. In all of Creation. As a people, they have committed culinary atrocities against seafood that no loving or reasonable deity could possible ever forgive.
Consider, friend, the lutefisk. Once a piece of humble cod, it has been soaked in lye by its sadistic Scandinavian overlords until it obtains the consistency of gelatin—soapy, fish-flavored gelatin that smells like a cross between cheap shampoo and a bucket of microwaved mackerel marinated in cat pee. I first encountered this purported delicacy at the aforementioned Swedish holiday gathering, after being subjected to platter after heaping platter of mutilated fish in every possible physical state that once-solid matter can be subjected to. Pulverized, pickled, reconstituted, chipped, creamed, ketchuped, brined, boiled, fried, baked, and flaked. Parts and pieces, tails and heads. And at the end, the mighty lutefisk, the proverbial 9th spiral of the Inferno that is Swedish food. Not wanting to disappoint my girlfriend, or risk offending her family, I took one small piece and put it in my mouth.
I cannot adequately describe the taste experience in words, but if I could, the description alone would make you vomit in disbelief. It really is that bad. It really, really is. It’s the only thing Jeffrey Steingarten wouldn’t eat, and he wrote a book called The Man Who Ate Everything. I did eat it, and not only that, but everyone else did too, and they acted like nothing was happening! Old Swedish women, hunched over their paper plates, snarfing down globs of lutefisk, while managing not to void their bowels from sheer olfactory terror. Children playing outside, oblivious to the stinking evil that lurked just feet away. Planes flying overhead, unaware that miles below, a band of well-intentioned Swedes had devised a substance so dangerous that merely smelling it would land you on an FBI watch list. I wanted to die.
But I didn’t, and though there is nothing to recommend their food, the Swedes got one thing right: aquavit. A neutral grain spirit originally devised by Norwegians (whom, it must be remembered, also gave us the gift of Black Metal), it is the favorite beverage of all Scandinavian countries, and if you had to eat their food, you would need to be seriously hammered too. In Sweden, it is traditionally consumed during the holiday season, both as a digestif, and as a way to distract your brain from what’s taking place in your mouth. Today, we’re taking a look at three different aquavits that you can use as your own psychological version of a Viking longship, just as thousands of desperate and lonely emotional cripples have done before you:
Lysholm Linie Aquavit: This Norwegian aquavit is one of the first that I tasted, and is still the standard-bearer as far as I’m concerned. This particular type of aquavit—linie, the Norwegian word for ‘line’—crosses the equator twice before it is bottled. This process began because the first distiller Jorgen Lysholm (unsurprisingly, a cod trader) sent his aquavit to Asia to sell it. When it didn’t sell, five barrels came back, and he noticed that it had a richer flavor when it crossed the equator the second time. Now all Linie Aquavit makes the same trip in sherry casks, down to Australia and back to Norway.
As a result of its trip, Linie is much darker than most aquavits—a deep honey gold that is nearly orange. Like most aquavits, its primary aromatic feature is caraway, but it is also quite a bit more complex, with notes of mint, rye, and pepper. The finish is long and warming, with a smooth, spicy character that is not overly hot (a feature of many aquavits). Next to whiskey and Fernet Branca, Linie is my favorite go-to spirit to drink straight. Definitely a classic.
Krogstad Aquavit: I met Christian Krogstad, the distiller for this Oregon aquavit, on my honeymoon in New Orleans. I was kind of drunk (hence probably slightly obnoxious), but he was still very nice and gracious—until I mentioned that I didn’t think aquavit was that great in cocktails. He then flew into a berserker rage and demanded that I try his aquavit in a Gimlet, which he then whipped for me at the house bar. Okay, maybe “berserker rage” is an exaggeration, but the drink was great. I stand now as I stood then—humbled by the balance and subtle sophistication of the Krogstad Gimlet. I still prefer my aquavit straight though.
This aquavit is colorless, and the nose is fairly straightforward—caraway, anise, a bit of pepper. What gets me about this spirit, in comparison to other aquavits, is the heavy anise flavor. This is much more anise-forward than any aquavit I’ve ever tasted, but it’s balanced by a lilting sweetness on the finish, and a silky mouthfeel. While I honestly don’t enjoy it nearly as much as others by itself, I think the advantage of the Krogstad is its mixability. You can do things with this aquavit that would not work with the standard Danish or Norwegian stuff, and that’s a good thing. And yes, it makes a great Gimlet. [It bears noting here that we had purchased a bottle of Krogstad to use before we met Christian, and before we received a sample bottle.] Recommended.
North Shore Aquavit: Disclaimer Two—Because I love to do what the FTC tells me, Sonja Kassebaum, one of half of the North Shore distilling team, gave us samples of her products, though not this one. She also laughed at some of my obviously unfunny jokes, and put up with my borderline bad conversation. That said, this is still one of the better aquavits out there, domestic or otherwise. Incredibly complex, and though caraway is prominent, there are really nice notes of citrus and coriander, with the added and unexpected presence of cumin. This is a traditional aquavit with some great twists, and is one of my favorite spirits to drink straight ever—maybe even more than the Linie. Highly recommended.
So this holiday season, instead of relying on the tired defense mechanisms of whiskey or handguns, why not reach for some aquavit? While it’s not as utilitarian as cold beer in the front yard, it certainly tastes better than piss-soaked fish, it will warm your grim and frostbitten heart, and it will make ignoring the petty selfishness of your family that much easier—or maybe that’s just me.
Linie Aquavit: 90
Krogstad Aquavit: 88
North Shore Aquavit: 90